For our upcoming Summer workshops, we are building submersible robots termed “ROVs” (Remote Operated Vehicles). These are similar to the large commercial oceanic explorers like the Hercules robot operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Robots like the Hercules and its kin allow exploration, monitoring and repair deep underwater where humans would find it difficult to remain for long or even to access at all due to the hazardous environment (pressure, cold, etc). Robots like Hercules assisted in the capping of the Gulf oil release following the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig’s detonation, which we studied in past workshops on HPC visualization systems.
When commercial deep-water robots are involved, it requires experienced operators and fantastically expensive equipment which few High School and younger students would be allowed to touch. So, in order to build their interest in robotics before they reach College, we use inexpensive open source alternatives like the Sea Perch design shared by MIT.
These ROVs are not multi-million-dollar masterpieces meant for exploring the very depths of the world’s oceans – they are meant for shallow-water exploration and development of operator skills and interest. Each Sea Perch ROV costs around $50 USD or less to construct from common hardware like PVC pipe, hobby DC motors sealed using melted toilet-bowl wax rings, and pool “noodle” foam floats. Their controls are rudimentary, using simple toggle and press-button switches to maneuver the robots around pools and sheltered waterways.
What the Sea Perch ROV allows is direct hands-on experience for young learners, who learn that robots moving in three dimensions of a fluid field are very different from our land-based rovers which do not have to worry about buoyancy or the density of their operating medium. By arranging competitions around the SeaPerch design, student’s interest can be further enhanced as they strive to develop improvements and skills ahead of their peers at other schools. Competitions may be maze navigation, object retrieval, or any other type of demonstration of ROV capability and control. Like the ROVs themselves, competitions require only inexpensive materials to create for a local pool area, and public exposure allows the students an opportunity to show off their skills and knowledge to others.
To make exploration and control easier, we are building video monitors for the ROVs using off-the-shelf hardware. While one team is working to develop a waterproof case for a Raspberry Pi and its camera, others are creating video monitors using automotive backup safety cameras and their LCD displays. Because these can be found in many different configurations, with costs around $15 USD for the camera or LCD screen, if they get dropped into the pool or damaged during a heated competition, they can be replaced in most educational classroom budgets.
By building a removable pressure vessel for each camera and using long video cables strung along the control tether of the ROV, each monitor can be swapped between multiple ROVs to keep classroom costs low even with larger classes. Our workshop participants this weekend learned about the requirements for potting and other techniques for waterproofing a camera that will operate underwater and have started building the first set of cameras for our ROVs this year.
We are also preparing to start a near-term crowd-funding campaign in the fourth round of the #SciFund Challenge trying to obtain an open-source ROV designed by the Maker community, called the OpenROV, which we hope to add to the resources our students and educators can use over the summer.
In addition to our usual ROV explorations, the OpenROV would allow students to perform experiments in deeper water than our Sea Perch designs can reach because it is capable of diving almost 100ft in open water. Our Sea Perch designs are meant for shallow protected exploration, such as in your local swimming pool, and its foam floats tend to compress as it dives down until they can no longer support the vehicle’s weight at which point they sink uncontrollably. We are also hoping to acquire a full-color underwater video camera so that our students can experience their underwater explorations in much better video resolution and share those videos with others on our YouTube channel.
I will blog more about our crowd-funding effort “Exploring the Depths with OpenROV“ at Microryza, the host of this year’s #SciFund Challenge, when the project goes live. Many of our current resources and recent experiments have been supported by past crowd-funding effort – a good process for educators and students if their school affiliations will allow it.
I have started to hand out small 3D printed models of the OpenROV to build interest in the upcoming crowd-funding effort. Our educational workshops will be adjusted this summer, depending on the success of our crowd-funding effort. We may study underwater dinosaur tracks in Central Texas, explore fish and plant life in spring-fed freshwater rivers of the Sabinal Canyon or saltwater barrier reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, we may simply explore our local swimming pools and develop experience in the process of designing a robot, building and operating it in a series of challenges. Any of those will help our students and educators develop new ideas for their next projects beyond this Summer and our program!